I was sexually harassed in the work place at 16.
It was my first job and I was working in a small hardware store. There were two others who were a year or two older than me (a guy and a girl who happened to be dating), and a few older gentlemen. I actually really enjoyed working there because the hours were great and I liked the people. We were an eclectic group, but it was a good working environment.
The owner was big on second chances (something I think is great) and gave a man…let’s call him John Doe…a job. John Doe was decent to work with at first. He liked to use the word incarceration a lot, but I never understood why. He was never shy to talk about the time he spent in jail, but he would smile and turn on the charm. You almost wondered why he was ever in jail. He was friendly with customers and always eager to help with whatever they needed.
It was a few months into his employment and one afternoon, the store was quiet, no customers, just the employees. We were hanging around the front counter chatting about random things, I can’t even remember what. What I do remember is that it was only John Doe and the two other teens and myself. The managers were in the storeroom. John Doe leered at me and said in a salacious tone, “I bet you taste sweet.” I was mortified. Humiliated. So utterly disgusted.
And I just stood there. I tried to laugh it off because – you don’t want him to feel bad, right? I remember looking at the other two who looked as shocked as me, but none of us said a word. I later said something to my male peer and he was stunned and I was on the verge of tears – all he could do was apologize. He validated what I felt, and said that John Doe had made inappropriate comments to his girlfriend (our co-worker). But that was as far as the conversation went. I mentioned it to the two other men who worked there who were disgusted by it, but not enough to do anything about it.
I walked away thinking that maybe it was nothing and I read into it. Maybe that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach was “nothing.”
I let it go.
But my guard was up. I tried to make sure I was never alone with John Doe and did a decent job of that. Until the day he cornered me in the storeroom. He made another inappropriate comment and I felt threatened. I did my best to look strong, but I was a mere 107 pound female with no ability to defend myself – even verbally.
I went home and cried.
I talked to my parents and told them I needed to quit and they fully supported the decision. I was terrified to have to talk to the boss because I knew he would want to know why I was quitting. I wanted to make up a lie, but I couldn’t do it.
The next day, I went in and asked to speak to my boss. We were in the storeroom and I told him I needed to quit. He looked surprised, maybe even a little angry. When he asked why, I said the words that I’d dreaded to say.
“John Doe sexually harassed me. I don’t feel safe.”
His response was not one of indignation on my part or concern for my safety. In fact, he didn’t say much other than he was disappointed to see me go. I enjoyed that job. I didn’t want to quit. I wanted him to fire that asshole. But he didn’t. He let me go because he didn’t want to deal with what John Doe did to me, and would do to others.
It was nearly a decade before I stepped foot in that store again. It was well after the owner sold out and I knew that John Doe was no longer there.
Some things I took away from that experience:
- No one was going to defend me.
- John Doe talked about his time in jail as an intimidation tactic.
- The owner was wrong. Plain and simple. He should have protected me and the other employees against the harassment and bullying from John Doe.
- I didn’t tell many people about what happened because I was ashamed.
- When we stay quiet, we give them the power.
I understand why men and women stay silent about these things. It isn’t to protect the perpetrator or to stay employed but it’s fear and humiliation. It’s concern about “maybe I imagined it,” or “maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal.”
This incident was but a small blip in the movie of my life, but it was one that impacted me. I’ve told people this story before, but I realize now that there are two very important people I’ve never told. My daughters. I want them to know it’s okay to speak up and stand up for yourself. This shaped how I would handle other situations in my life…and especially the time I fought back.